Monthly Archives: October 2013

Narendra Modi vs Huey Long

A long time ago a graduate student wrote an academic paper that got mildly popular. The student’s Professor called the said student and told him something to the effect of ‘if you write a paper that’s understood by more than 20 people, you haven’t written anything worthwhile‘. That worldview at one end of the spectrum, despite its absolute close-mindedness, seems to now make more sense. Which is explained by the popularity of this person with exaggerated hand gestures in our times and the similarity of gestures to one we’d now dismiss as a populist from 80 years ago. In both cases, the need to connect with a larger audience is specifically at the expense of a smaller audience.

Long was of course assassinated after declaring his intent to run for President during one of his campaign events; many attempts to assassinate him previously had failed.


Probability of becoming PM: Jayalalitha vs Narendra Modi

Let’s do a real quick and very dirty probability calculation for two contenders who may be Prime Minister in 2014 based on the likelihood map. Let’s consider Narendra Modi first. The BJP’s expectation range as we’d assumed is between 130 – 180. Let’s assume a normal distribution and make it really dirty for simplicity’s sake and also assume the probability of BJP getting about 160 seats or above is 0.6 (that’s being generously dirty to the BJP and plain dirty to integration, but let’s live with that for now). Let’s also assume the BJP’s traditional allies who are “highly likely” to be part of NDA as marked in the likelihood map follow their expectation functions as well. The SS, SAD and TDP add to 33 seats. One could add AGP and smaller caste parties and make this number 40 without much exaggeration. And given this is close to their expectation, let’s assign this a probability value of 0.6.

So what we have here is the core NDA at 200 seats so far and this has a probability of occurrence of P(BJP >= 160) * P(NDA Allies >= 40) = 0.6 * 0.6 = 0.36. Now for Mr Modi needs two of the following three (and preferably all three) to get close to a simple majority mark of 272 in the Lok Sabha: BSP, AIADMK and TMC.

The TMC is in a bit of a bind. By virtue of a weakened INC, any non-NDA formation in New Delhi will likely include the Left and therefore the TMC cannot possibly join it. However if it does join the NDA, its own long term prospects in a state with 25% Muslims may have some impact. So the only logical option in TMC’s self interest is to be seen as the last party that joins an imminent NDA government. That is, despite having no real options for itself, what the TMC does in this game is to automatically increase the bargaining powers of Ms Jayalalitha and Ms Mayawati. Further, bear in mind the leaders of BSP and AIADMK also have a legitimate bargain to drive given they don’t have the problem of competing with the Left in an existential sense; and also have a shot at becoming Prime Minister or cornering far more ministries.

So, for our equation, let’s assume the TMC joins the NDA at no extra cost for Mr Modi but then doubles the premium of BSP and AIADMK. Originally, both BSP and AIADMK had 2 options — NDA and Third Front. The Third Front being their preferred and stated preference — for both the optics of being secular and the practicality of it offering a better shot at Prime Ministership or more ministries. So let’s assume these two parties joining the Third Front compared to NDA is at 60:40. That means, the 0.4 original probability value of either party being in favour of Mr Modi’s ascension will be queered to 0.16 by TMC. So his probability of becoming PM will be, P(Narendra Modi = PM) = P(NDA >= 200) * P(TMC) * {P(AIADMK)*P(AIADMK Premium) + P(BSP)*P(BSP Premium)} * P(Other Small Parties) = 0.36*0.6*{0.6*0.16 + 0.6*0.16 }*0.8. That leaves the Probability of Narendra Modi being the Prime Minister of India in 2014 to be 0.033176.

For Ms Jayalalitha  to become Prime Minister, she has two routes: one is an ultra rare event where she is a compromise candidate in an NDA Government and another where she leads a third front government. As another dirty calculation, let’s assume her chance within the NDA is 1/100 of Narendra Modi’s. That’s 0.00033. The third front as a whole, excluding the TMC, TDP, the core NDA allies and RJD, is likely to reach 160; or that is the expectation according to the likelihood map. The probability of that when considered a group can be straight away assigned at 0.6 just as we did for non-BJP NDA allies. The INC merely needs to perform poorly as it’s expected to do and extend support from the outside for the formation of this government. The premium in terms of INC supporting from the outside can possibly be set at 0.5 given the party does have an incentive to do that — namely keep the BJP out. The only downside however is the large number of Prime Ministerial aspirants in this group. Let’s assume there are 5 viable candidates and all are equally likely including Ms Jayalalitha. That leaves her probability in this group to P(Third Front >=160) * P(INC >100 & <130) * P(INC Premium) * P(Others/ Independents) *P(Aspirant Premium) = 0.6*0.6*0.5*0.8*0.2 = 0.0288.

Another low probability event in favour of Ms Jayalalitha is a Federal Front backed by the TMC instead of Left and SP instead of BSP. As another dirty calculation, let’s assume the Federal Front is 20 times rarer than the Third Front. That leaves it at 0.0014.

Add the two rare events to the Third Front Possibility, given they are all distinct paths, and we have Ms Jayalalitha’s chances of becoming Prime Minister at 0.0305 as against Mr Modi’s at 0.03317. That’s a premium of 0.003 in terms of likelihood of becoming Prime Minister that Mr Modi commands over Ms Jayalalitha.

Mr Modi: Beware of Friendly Fire

The two major political parties of india, the INC and the BJP, are still pretending that the fight is between the two of them for 2014 General Elections. It serves both their interests; the fact, as anyone who has looked at the electoral map of India will know, is that about 70% of the country does not vote in a BJP-Congress contest. However, both these parties pretend to run against each other in terms of posturing for two reasons: they need an easy to define opponent and they don’t want to alienate future allies.

The actual election is largely contested in the following tranches.

  • In central and western India where there is a direct BJP-INC contest. Here the BJP has a distinct advantage if polling trends are to be taken in account. 
  • A similar straight contest in smaller pockets of northern India where the INC has a closer to even chance — Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and NCR are examples.
  • Large and decisive states like TN, UP, Bihar, WB happen to be contests between two local camps. The national parties are marginal players on the sides and are unlikely to cross 25% of the vote share even when taken together in any of these states.
  • In other non-Hindi speaking states the BJP has historically found it difficult to make in-roads. The contest in these states is mostly between the INC and a local party or the Left. Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Orissa, Assam and much of the North East are examples of this cluster.

One may agonise about the Polls but expanding the range for prediction makes it relatively easy. The BJP, by itself, is going to achieve getting somewhere between 130 – 180 seats while the INC is likely to achieve between 100 – 150. So the real election is in terms of who else gets how much and lean which way. If we stack up the allies, a likelihood map emerges.

Party Mean Expectation NDA Affiliation UPA Affiliation Third/Federal Front Affiliation
AIADMK 30 Likely Higly Unikely Highly Likely
DMK 5 Higly Unikely Highly Likely Unlikely
Left 35 Higly Unikely Unlikely Highly Likely
TDP 7 Highly Likely Highly Unlikely Likely
YSRC 12 Unlikely Likely Highly Likely
TRS 10 Unlikely Likely Highly Likely
JDS 3 Unlikely Likely Highly Likely
NCP 6 Unlikely Highly Likely Likely
SS 14 Highly Likely Highly Unlikely Unlikely
BJD 12 Unlikely Unlikely Highly Likely
TMC 22 Likely Unlikely Likely
JDU 12 Unlikely Likely Highly Likely
SP 25 Higly Unlikely Likely Highly Likely
BSP 30 Likely Unlikely Likely
RJD 12 Higly Unlikely Unlikely Likely
SAD 12 Highly Likely Highly Unlikely Unlikely

NDA’a path: For it to get close to a simple majority in Lok Sabha it needs to get at least two but preferably all three of AIADMK, BSP and TMC. These three ladies — Ms Jayalalitha, Ms Mayawati and Ms Mamata Banerjee — all have personal ambitions. Particularly Ms Mayawati and Ms Jayalalitha see 2014 as their chance to become the Prime Minister and their party cadre have stated so. That means they’d exhaust all possibilities of a third/federal front sweet deal before joining the NDA. And that’s subject to the BJP crossing the 170 mark by itself. Further, if BSP and TMC are to join, their first bargaining chip maybe Mr Modi’s candidature given they both come from states with Muslim populations of 18% and 25% respectively. Whether that’s fair to Mr Modi or not, it’d  seem fair in their perceived self interest. An NDA government with Prime Minister Jayalalitha, anyone?

The UPA’s path based on the above map is almost impossible and needs no real mapping.

The real challenge that the NDA faces is the Federal Front or the Third Front. The only real difference between these two formations is the presence of one among the following pairs,

  • BSP or SP
  • Left or TMC

The BSP will possibly be present in both fronts at the expense of SP if the trend of its consolidation continues in UP. Therefore the only real question is between the TMC and the Left. Given the Left has alliances with many other parties which form the front at the state level, and has a presence in many states which may always be helpful in future elections, it’s likely that most parties may prefer the Left to TMC. The set of all parties that may be open to a Third/Federal Front add up to 216 MPs based on mean expectation. The core parties without existential contradiction — AIADMK, Left, BJD, NCP, JDU, JDS, YSRC*, TRS* and BSP — add up to 150 MPs. To this circus, another 15 MPs from small parties and Independents who are always willing to join any government, can readily be added. That comes close to the BJP’s best possible result. If the INC decides to prop this third front drama just to keep the BJP out, it’s easy to see Ms Jayalalitha or Ms Mayawati or for that matter Mr Nitish Kumar as the next Prime Minister. To a question of why would Ms Jayalalitha agree to Ms Mayawati or Mr Kumar being PM or why Ms Mayawati would to one of the other two being PM: the absence of a national party in the Cabinet means space. With Jayalalitha as PM and BSP Ministers for Defence and External Affairs, we really could have a nightmarish but plausible government.

The one thing to emerge from the above scenarios is this: Ms Jayalalitha has an outside chance of becoming Prime Minister in multiple formations. Ms Mayawati does too. While Mr Modi has all his eggs in one basket and he still needs the express support of those who actually are likely to be his biggest rivals for the coveted chair. The reverse though, sadly for him, isn’t always true.

* – Assumption being: TRS and YSRC are ideologically opposed but don’t have the same geographical interest in terms of seats contested and hence are incompatible only till elections are over.

Tracking Opinion Polls

The Election Commission of India does not like Opinion or Exit Polls. The latter a bit more than the former according to that 1998 order; this is true especially for elections that stretch across a few months. But if the recent recommendations of the Commission are to be considered, the Election Commission’s view of Opinion Polls is no less disapproving.

An essential aspect of political messaging is to imply winnability. That’s part of the reason why large rallies are sometimes advertised and reported as being large. Rarely does a neutral voter go to a political rally and come out making one’s mind up upon listening to partisan rhetoric. The size of the rally though lets the neutral voter guess the value of voting with that given block — it provides both validation for thought a priori in terms comfort in numbers and hope that one’s vote will not be meaningless after it’s been cast. On that count it’s difficult to argue with EC’s diagnosis: a well received/trusted poll by itself will move the reality of the landscape that poll was measuring in the first place. But should that be a reason to not poll at all is a separate question that isn’t answered by a mere diagnosis.

What happens to the above question if Opinion Polls peddle partisan agenda or just bad methodology? Let’s consider the recent Opinion Poll that was called India TV-Times Now-C Voter Survey. No where does the poll give out its methodology in any significant detail. That makes it hard for any one following the poll to trust its absolute numbers. However, this is the only poll in recent times that has published successively. Therefore, the one good thing to follow from this poll will be to ignore the absolute numbers and just follow trends benchmarked to the previous poll by the same organisation. For even a bad methodology cancels itself out to some extent in the next iteration when all we want is the incremental movement. The other Opinion Poll on the national level a few months ago did a fantastic job in giving readers/viewers the methodology; however it hasn’t yet followed up with the next iteration and therefore leaves us guessing what that trend might be.

Another recent poll by the AAP — though just for Delhi Assembly Elections — has done the spectacular: they’ve released raw data for analysis by anyone. If not for anything else, and even if their methodology upon analysis comes up woefully inadequate, they should get the vote of everyone with faith data science. Just for trying.

Even if we aggregate the above polls and every other such poll and track them over time and adjust each for ‘house effect’ and other individual quirks, the sample size in terms of actual number of polls in India is too little for anyone to attempt what Nate Silver did. That, and the small complication that we live in a Parliamentary system with First Past the Post where converting vote share to seats won is enormously complicated and not a strict science.

In this scenario, a polling idea that is most suited for India appears to be what the RAND Corporation did. A fixed set of people, of considerably lower sample size, were picked. And the same people were polled every week. This might work far better in a complex and complicated country like India than attempting to perfect the holy grail of random stratified sampling across the multiple fault lines in our society. This allows the errors to largely get benchmarked against themselves as we then get to track the trends in a far better manner. Why no one has yet attempted to do that is baffling — not only will it be more accurate but one imagines, a lot less expensive too.

Is there epistemic value in political hypocrisy?

Randy Cohen alluded to a variant of the everyday dilemma most of us face in his goodbye column: does the personal ethics of an ethicist matter to the ethicist’s ethical discourse? Though partly in jest, his point was well made thus,

I say with some shame, there has been no such gradual change in my own behavior. Writing the column has not made me even slightly more virtuous. And I didn’t have to be: it was in my contract. O.K., it wasn’t. But it should have been. I wasn’t hired to personify virtue, to be a role model for the kids, but to write about virtue in a way readers might find engaging. Consider sports writers: not 2 in 20 can hit the curveball, and why should they? They’re meant to report on athletes, not be athletes. And that’s the self-serving rationalization I’d have clung to had the cops hauled me off in handcuffs.

We face this to a lesser degree in our lives given most of us don’t take the exalted title of being an Ethicist. However, personal hypocrisy as an opposing argument is quite often too easy and too tempting to let go. The argument that one may make more reasonably and less funnily against the use of personal hypocrisy is easy: if the merit of argumentation is judged by the merit of the proponent’s morality, human motives will be aligned to explain one’s status quo and not take the argumentation to its highest epistemic value. In other words, not only is the use of hypocrisy as an argument make for poor argumentation but it defeats the purpose of argumentation.

Another set of people in even more exalted positions than ethicists and even more prone to attacks of hypocrisy happen to be politicians. The question here is: does a politician have to personally live up to the code one proposes for the rest of the population? That’s a far more complicated question than the ethicist transgressing the limits one is aware of by virtue of being an expert in such awareness. Extreme right wing socially conservative politicians often face this problem: if they are caught doing reasonably libertine or even liberal things, does that invalidate their conservative principles or their own ability to bear the message of such conservatism? Likewise, do limousine liberals have to be paragons of the virtue they pontificate on?

The muddling of this only gets worse when electoral campaigning is involved. Any opposition politician in any democracy tries to accuse the government of the day of everything and its opposite; hoping something will stick. For instance, Narendra Modi, India’s principal opposition politician currently, does this often; such as criticizing the government’s fiscal profligacy and the poor allocations of funds to proposed spending programs at once. How does a voter judge a politician in this case? And how does history judge the politician and more importantly, the policy? Thoughts welcome.